Thursday, the 17th of December, 2009, was an important day for downtown Jackson. Developer David Watkins snipped a scarlet ribbon and the King Edward was back in business after forty-three years of solitude. Arduous as the task was, Watkins and his partners Deuce McAllister and Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans had the nerve and grit to get the project completed. Many in Jackson were incredulous that the grand hotel could have opened again.
The hotel in its present form is actually the third building to occupy the site. The first hotel was known as the Confederate House and was opened by Major R. O. Edwards in 1861. It was destroyed during the Civil War and was replaced by the Edwards House in 1868. The newer hotel was expanded at least three times, even housing Governor Edmond F. Noel during renovations at the Governor’s Mansion. By 1922, it was showing its considerable age and had grown too small for the ever-expanding trade through the railway station across Capitol Street.
The Enochs family decided to take drastic measures and demolish the Edwards and replace it with a stunning new building designed by New Orleans architect William T. Nolan. The sparkling 12-story hotel was completed in just eleven months, opening its doors on the 29th of December, 1923. Materials for the building came from over 20 states. The price tag for such luxuries wasn’t small- $1.5 million was quite a lot of money in those days. Orchestras played in the elegant Venetian Dining Room and its marbled halls and meeting rooms were filled with Jackson society. Eudora Welty mentions the dining room of the Edwards in “One Writer’s Beginnings” as one of the few places where she and her family would deign to dine in public.
Operations continued under the aegis of the Enochs family until the 1930s when ownership passed to lenders, but the family was able to regain control of the property in 1946. It was sold in 1954 to Jackson entrepreneur Dumas Milner for $1m. Milner’s $700,000.00 program of renovation and modernization was nothing if not thorough. Few corners of the 400-room hotel were left untouched. In went modern touches like an escalator to the mezzanine floor, a fifth floor rooftop swimming pool with the hopping Patio Club and mod furniture throughout all twelve floors. Out went the grand rotunda, filled-in to accommodate a new ballroom. Society spots like the Petroleum Club moved in too. In 1960, a new and even larger convention hall was added on Capitol Street. The legislators continued to make the King Edward their unofficial home, thus continuing the oft-uttered joke that there were three houses of the Mississippi Legislature, the Upper, the Lower and the Edwards House. The dining room was changed several times during these years. The former Venetian Room became the French Verandah after an elaborate makeover. When this proved less than popular, Milner remade it again into the “Coach and Six.” There was also a popular oyster bar on the northwest corner facing Capitol Street. Milner also banished most of the offices from the third, fourth and fifth floors in order to accommodate more hotel rooms. There would eventually be a total of 407 rooms, though many of them would be considered small by the standards of our day.
Milner didn’t stop with just renovating the hotel from stem to stern. The name “Edwards Hotel” was apparently not regal enough for his tastes, so he changed the name to the “King Edward”, thus the name which has become so familiar to us today came into being on a whim. There was another “King Edward” owned by Milner, the old Hotel La Salle in Beaumont, Texas was purchased by Milner in the early 1960s and given a similar makeover and was also renamed the “King Edward.” It survived in one form or another until its demolition a few years ago. With the new nomenclature, the roof signs in Jackson were altered to reflect the hotel’s enhanced status. Still visible for miles, the red neon was changed to the “King Edward” we all recognize today.
I had made scathing remarks about Milner’s renovations in previous articles, but his renovation program possibly gave the staid Edwards a few more years of life before it was closed in the despicable tide of racially motivated business closures. Bishop Duncan Gray once noted that the King Edward had, in truth, opened its doors to African American guests, but suggested that the reasons for doing so were more mercenary than altruistic or forward-thinking. Whatever the truth, the end came on the 30th of June, 1967 when the front doors were locked and bolted by E. Bill Greene, the hotel’s last General Manager for 43 years.
Its first years of twilight went without incident beyond the occasional urban explorer entering the building. As the years advanced, however, the hotel became a popular place for Jackson’s homeless population. It is remarkable that more damage wasn’t done, but anyone who entered the hollow shell of what had once been the capital city’s grandest hotel could see and smell its impending doom. While visiting Jackson in 2002, I was surprised that I was able to wander inside with my camera, unfettered by chains, fences or even boards on the windows. While an attempt to secure the building had obviously been made, thwarting it was all to easy for any visitor.
Mayor Frank Melton wanted nothing more to do with the King Edward than to see its beige bricks rain down in a thunderous implosion. The late mayor even called city workers together to prepare for its implosion. There was just one problem- engineers had discovered that the hotel was so well built that it would cost millions to destroy it. This one fact, more than anything, must have saved it all these years.
Local attorney David Watkins represented Historic Restoration Inc. of New Orleans, one of three groups proffering plans to redevelop the hotel. His patience and tenacity also saved the King through the many hoops the Melton administration lassoed up, over and around the hotel in the indubitably eccentric mayor’s efforts to thwart development. It was only later, when Watkins was deeply involved in other projects, that he realized the vital importance of spearheading the project as an investor and, if you will permit the pun, King-Maker. I would visit the King Edward “legally” as a guest of David Watkins while the hotel was in the throes of a $90m renovation project that would yank the hotel from the precipice. Soon, the King Edward would take its place again as part of what promises to be a thriving downtown Jackson. My next piece will tell you more about what to expect as a visitor to the King.